Happy Birthday, Toussaint Louverture

Born on this day in 1743, Toussaint Louverture led the black uprising that resulted in the Haitian Revolution. He was born a slave, and he died in captivity, having dealt a decisive first blow to colonialism and slavery.

Close-up of a drawing of Toussaint Louverture on horseback, 1802. (Metropolitan Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons)

In the great book of history, as well as in the 1960 study that Aimé Césaire dedicated to him, Toussaint Louverture makes his first appearance two years after the storming of the Bastille, at the beginning of the French Revolution. He arrives on the stage of history in August 1791, aged almost fifty, as a leader of the slave insurrection in Saint-Domingue.

Himself born a slave on May 20, 1743, the anti-colonial leader was at first known as Toussaint Bréda, after the plantation near Haut de Cap where he was based. There, he became a detonator for the revolutionary ideas from Paris, which, making their way across the Atlantic, led to one of the most important political upheavals of recent centuries.

This Caribbean territory had been a linchpin of the eighteenth-century imperial order; it was also one of the richest colonies in the world at the time. But in a land where slaves constituted nearly 90 percent of the population, the oppressed revolted against the colonial monster — and defeated it.

In Césaire’s words, the rebels not only showed how “the rights of man [had] often been reduced to the rights of European man alone,” but prompted the beginning of the “abolition of the colonial era in the American hemisphere.” Imperialist and colonialist Europe had brought the whole world to its knees; now, its invincibility was finally cracked.

The Slave Revolution

A widely debated, somewhat elusive, and indeed controversial figure, Toussaint Louverture became renowned worldwide even at the time of the events. In recent decades, he has regained notoriety mainly thanks to C. L. R. James’s 1938 classic The Black Jacobins, one of the most influential historical works of the twentieth century. There has been no shortage, even in recent times, of studies that capture the complexity of the Saint-Domingue revolution and the special role of Louverture’s leadership, his pragmatism, his military skill, and his Machiavellian diplomacy. But Césaire’s book remains a milestone for its insightful reading of the “three moments” needed for the revolutionary process to mature.

Césaire, as a longtime politician — and poet, storyteller, and essayist — dug deep into the contradictions of the gradual overthrow of “white” power in the Caribbean. The events there marked the first real step forward in a long decolonization process that culminated, not coincidentally, in 1960: the same year that the first edition of his book Toussaint Louverture was published.

As James had already pointed out, the Haitian slave revolution exploded a striking contradiction between principles and material interests. If, as James tells us, “the slave-trade and slavery were the economic basis of the French Revolution,” and “a great empire and honest minds go ill together,” in the development of privileges built around color “it was the quarrel between whites and Mulattoes that woke the sleeping slaves.”

In France, the curtain was raised on this dispute on March 2, 1790, with the “first great colonial debate in French parliamentary history.” As Césaire explains, this took place in the face of pressure from mulattos who, following in the wake of the colonists’ demands, claimed equal rights for themselves, too. When they were ignored, they were driven to rebel.

The subsequent “Negro revolution” (Césaire himself alternates between the terms noir and nègre) was in fact made possible by the two previously unsuccessful attempts. First was that of the “white” settlers who sought access to the rights that the Assemblée Nationale in theory proclaimed for “all men,” while hesitating for those born outside mainland France, and excluding anyone with skin darker than their own: the “men of color,” usually mulattos who were the children of relations between settlers and slaves or ex-slaves.

It was precisely the attempted rebellion of the “mulattos,” the free “men of color” — though generally not at all caring about the rights denied to the great mass of slaves — that provided these latter with their great opportunity. In a nutshell, these three phases make up the three books of Césaire’s vast study focused on the period from 1789 to 1804, on both sides of the Atlantic: namely, “The Dissent Among the Rich Whites”; “The Mulatto Revolt”; and “The Negro Revolution.”

Key to this latter revolution were the days in late August 1791, when the mulattoes tried in vain to seize the opportunity of a “Negro revolt,” as “countless hordes, with rage in their hearts and knives in their hands, flooded the northern plains” of Saint-Domingue. They sought to exploit the revolt — and also to stop it in good time. It was they, in March and April 1793, who stormed the places of white power and temporarily overwhelmed it. Notes Césaire: “It is a fact that black men had succeeded in a short time in transforming a small, despised caste, a social group kept on a leash — and the Revolution is the locomotive of history — into a class that had prevailed against the others and without which it was impossible to rule.”

But apart from a few isolated voices, both mulatto leaders and the revolutionaries in France had not understood the issue sufficiently clearly, even in brutally quantitative terms: the “terrible Negro problem.” There was nothing to expect from Paris, Césaire again summarizes: “the French assemblies chatted a lot about the Negroes but did very little for them.” Indeed, in those same days in late August 1791, while two hundred sugar mills and six hundred coffee plantations were being destroyed and hundreds of whites being killed, a leader emerged for the revolt “when it, through its constancy, had reached the moment when it could turn into insurrection.”

A Man, a Legend

In August 1791 Toussaint Bréda — who, three years later, decided to take the name “Toussaint Louverture” — entered the stage of history — a stage where he would remain. In Césaire’s work he is introduced in epic tones, with a zeal that runs throughout the work of the poet of négritude:

He was the coachman of a cultivator, Bayon de Libertas, legal agent of the Bréda habitation belonging to Count Noé — hence the name which Toussaint was given for a time: Toussaint Bréda, known as Louverture.

A man of forty-eight, he could read and write and enjoyed a certain prestige among his peers, owing both to his decisiveness and intellectual superiority.

He was a valuable recruit for the rebellion. So valuable that it was impossible to estimate his importance.

By welcoming “old Toussaint” into its ranks, the rebellion believed it was welcoming a kind of Nestor. He was in fact a leader, that is, a leader the rebellion was giving itself….

Toussaint was a man of tact. He knew how to make his way into the scene, to take possession of it without alarming anyone.

“When Toussaint Louverture arrived” — writes Césaire in conclusion — “it was to take the Declaration of the Rights of Man literally.” Mapping out the “immoral color prejudice” that the French Revolution set before itself — indeed, debate after debate over 1790–91 had only confirmed the institutionalization of slavery — the Martinican poet observes that neither “whites” nor complicit mulattoes could have sparked the revolution. It took a “political mind” convinced that the conquest of “general freedom” would be “a long-term task,” and moreover the work “of the black people, who had to mature this idea in their own heads, and not in the heads of the colonists.” And so it was.

Toussaint Louverture was able to lead his people militarily and, at the same time, “to forge a nation in the midst of struggle.” In the heart of the 1790s, in the Caribbean, “a leader for the black people of Saint-Domingue” was born:

a revolutionary leader, a man connected with the masses, who revealed new capabilities as events invested him with new responsibilities. A man of thought, a man of action, a diplomat, an administrator, all qualities that came to the fore as the need arose. Toussaint Louverture was all this; and we can only shudder at the thought that his genius, if overlooked by men and unused, could have been all spent in slavery.

The period that followed was tremendously complex. The years between 1794 and 1801 saw the troops of Saint-Domingue rebels captained by Louverture put themselves at the service of the French Republic. On February 4, 1794, after nearly four years of dilemmas and vacillations, this Republic finally brought the French Revolution to the abolition of slavery.

Louverture was an ambitious man (what leader isn’t?) with ambivalent and even contradictory attitudes. He repeatedly fought under different banners, indeed quite literally: at first a monarchist, he then found himself collaborating with two other empires, the British and Spanish, finally with the French tricolor, only to be betrayed by France itself. Yet he developed firm, unbreakable, radical principles, well summarized by a letter he sent to the Directory in June 1798, in which he bitterly commented on the plots he saw mounting Saint-Domingue. He here renewed his oath, both for himself and the men and women who had freed themselves from their chains, namely “to prefer to be buried under the ruins of a country resurrected by freedom rather than suffer the return to slavery.” He declared that if slavery were to be reestablished, “it would be like attempting the impossible; we knew how to face all dangers to obtain our freedom, we will know how to face death to guard it.”

Toussaint Louverture was surely reluctant to give up the power he had won, as shown by the debate among historians, taken up by Charles Forsdick. He was also a man — this is one of Césaire’s arguments — who was unable to transform the economy of Saint-Domingue quickly enough, even if he had wanted to. It remained stranded in the difficult and dramatic phase of transition between a system structured on slave or quasi-slave exploitation — a system that would long endure, as the coffee empire still demonstrates today — and a new order that remained to be invented. He understood, however, that the situation called for his sacrifice: that “his person, mixed up as he was in all events,” had become an obstacle to the unity of the people of Saint-Domingue, whose territory had come back under the control of the France of “consul” Bonaparte. And so, Louverture effectively surrendered himself to the French, and stepped aside.

Climbing aboard off Cap-Français, he told the commander of Le Héros, “By overthrowing me you have cut down in Saint-Domingue only the trunk of the tree of black freedom; but it will grow back from its roots, for they are many and deep.”

Bitter Ending, Open Future

The struggle that the people of African descent in Saint-Domingue led for some twelve years — defeating white settlers and French soldiers, repelling a Spanish invasion, a British expedition, and a final French attack — ultimately led to a momentous victory that the “Black Spartacus,” the first “black superhero” (as defined by Sudhir Hazareesingh), would not see.

Even with all its contradictions, Saint-Domingue’s was the first and only slave revolt to become a revolution and lead — as Marco Bascetta points out — “to the founding of an independent state, albeit one destined for a decidedly unhappy existence.”

Toussaint Louverture is still today “the center of Haitian history, probably the center of Caribbean history,” as Césaire writes, with a deliberately hagiographic tone and rhythm: “They gave him bands, he made of them an army. They gave him a jacquerie, he made of it a Revolution. Of a population he made a people. Of a colony he made a state, or rather a nation.”

Toussaint Louverture died a prisoner of the French, at Fort de Joux, on April 7, 1803. He passed away a few months before the independence of the first “black republic” in human history, Haiti, was proclaimed “in the name of blacks and men of color,” at a moment when slavery had just been reintroduced in France. Slavery would remain in force for another four decades, despite the 1794 decree.

As Jacques-René Hébert, murdered a few days later during the Terror, said at the time,

A day will come, I hope, when all the peoples of the earth, having exterminated their tyrants, will form one family of brothers. Perhaps one day Turks, Russians, French, English and Germans, united in the same Senate, will compose a great Convention with all the nations of Europe. That would be a beautiful dream that, however, could come true. I do not believe, however, that, as Anacharsis prophesies, we should make Don Quixotes and undertake a universal crusade to convert to freedom those who are not yet worthy of knowing it. It is up to time and reason for such a miracle. Let us begin ourselves to establish freedom!

The French Revolution, “confronted with the colonial question,” had to “confront itself,” and “the principles from which it had sprung,” Césaire writes. It hesitated, wavered, and ended up engulfing itself. But it also learned, thanks to the determination of Toussaint Louverture and his slave army, that freedom is not a force you can stop at will. That the oppressed do not need tyrants’ permission to break their chains: dissent can become revolt, and revolt can become revolution.